Where He’d Been

He’d watched one night, two, three, along with the days in between, driving the dark blue Tesla down the streets a few times through each period. Electric, silent, fast, rechargeable, the Tesla was ideal. If he was a burglar in the real world, the Tesla would be his choice of vehicles.

Lights had broken the tidy homes’ darkness a few times. Nothing sustained. Patterns reminded him of night lights. He thought, creatures creeping through places. Raccoons, skunks, opossums, or maybe bigger things like cougars, wolves, coyotes, bears. Nothing like that here, though, right? No, he’d looked for their prints, scat, and kills. He didn’t know what was triggering the night lights, but he didn’t think that it was big animals like those, but his mind kept entertaining visions of meeting them.

He finally chose a neat white craftsman on the corner. Lacy white curtains were drawn on the windows. The flowers were dead in the window boxes. The house wasn’t too big, probably fifteen, eighteen hundred square feet, maybe. Well maintained. Solid. Probably built around 1910, like a whole other era. A whole other time. A whole other existence.

It hadn’t shown any lights. He approached it during the day. Felt better, safer, that way, being in strangers’ homes during the day. First, he walked cautiously around the yard through the tall grass, watching the windows and listening. Not even a wind broke the sound, though there was sometimes a bird singing or flying by overhead.

Closing on the house, he went up the front steps onto the green painted porch and to the door. He lightly knocked. He used to say, “Hello,” but then he’d learned to dislike hearing his voice in that silence.

Nobody answered the first, second, or more impatient third knock. Between the second and third, he held his breath and tried opening the door, confirming it was locked. Everyone locked up like they’d gone away but were coming back.

It was a pretty door, stained hardwood with beveled panes of glass. He hated breaking a pane, but it was necessary. So was the cold Smith and Wesson that he wrapped his fingers around in his pocket. You never knew what waited inside. He used to carry a shotgun, but he wasn’t a shotgun person.

Leaving his bags on the porch, he entered the house. The floor creaked with his ginger steps. The first thing he saw after entering and closed the door was a wall of photographs. Some showed servicemen who might have been in World War II or Korea. Others were definitely of the Vietnam and Gulf War vintages. Poor saps. Loving couples were on smiling display. The family’s growth was demonstrated through a succession of photographs. Holiday scenes told on their religion.

Stilling, he drew back from the wall. They must have lived here a long time.

He felt brazen and crude for his presence.

They would understand, wouldn’t they?

Hard to say, hard to say.

Questions like that had many sideways directions.

As did his existence. Were they all still alive elsewhere, and he was the dead one, or was this a dream? Perhaps, he sometimes speculated, he’d gone sideways into another reality.

He’d given up on hope that he’d slide back. Passing the wall of memories, he made his way straight back down the narrow hallway toward where he thought he’d find the kitchen. Nobody was dead inside. The air demonstrated that closed house mustiness of disuse, but lacked the qualities of sickness and death. Dust motes cavorted in the sunlight.

As expected, the kitchen was found at the hall’s end, a magnificently updated and warm place, made for people to cook as others gathered and chatted, sipping coffee, wine, or tea as they told about where they’d been and what they’d been doing. He wished they would tell him now.

The pantry was full, as expected. Pasta, crackers, cereal, oat meal, flour, rice, dried beans, canned goods, coffee, tea. Going back for his re-usable shopping bags – no more plastic or paper bags, thank you – he stocked up. He found Kalamata olives, which pleased him. They felt like a reward. Untouched Gouda cheese was in the refrigerator. He stood and looked in at the cold, lit refrigerator interior for a long time. The vegetables and fruit had gone bad. He removed them and tossed them out back for the rest of the world.

After the kitchen, he found a liquor cabinet and a wine cabinet and filled up his bags. He didn’t take everything, just in case there were matters that he couldn’t predict, like their return, because there were matters he didn’t know, like where they were. He didn’t open any drawers or closets in the bedrooms. He didn’t need anything from them.

After putting his bags in the Tesla’s trunk, he came back and cleaned up the glass on the hall floor from where he’d broken in. Finding a workbench in the garage out back, he covered the window with taped cardboard, just in case, and then paused in the open doorway, looking around. You would think, he thought, that he’d be done with the emotions. Well, you’d be wrong, he answered. You’d be dead wrong.

Good-bye, he said without speaking, and closed the door on where he’d been.

 

Cat Day

I guess, to give it a start, it began with the cat.

The rest is backdrop. Setting. Background. This started with the cat and her kittens.

They were totally unanticipated. We were starting another football season. Done in by injuries, my team had finished second, losing in the Superbowl by two stinking points the year before.

Unfortunately, I lost to iBot. He’s the housebot. Thinking I’d be funny and play against casting, iBot has the most masculine personality among the bots. I also made him the most abrasive. So losing to him sucked. iBot isn’t a gracious winner. I guess I should say, wasn’t, since we’re talking about the past.

There were twelve of us, and the eleven bots. Our league was three divisions of four teams each. You played your division opponents twice, and each team out of the other divisions once, for an eleven-game regular season. Then we had the playoffs. Eight teams with the best records squared off.

Cat Day, as iBot officially named it, was the first day of the season. I thought I could take the Lombardi that year. We were playing by the 2030 rules. I had Ben Roethlisberger at QB (my Dad, before he was killed, used to tell me I was a big Roethlisberger fan when I was young), with Franco Harris (Grand Dad’s favorite) in the backfield, Mike Webster at Center (another of Grand Dad’s recommendations) and big Gronk at TE. I’d managed to add Alan Faneca. Wide receivers were Antonio Brown with Larry Fitzgerald in the slot. It was on defense where I’d improved, managing to add Ron Woodson, replacing Sherman, along with Troy Polamalu. I’d had enough money to get the 2010 version of Troy to go along with my 2009 version of James Harrison. I was set.

I’d settled into the Immersion Deck, opening day at Heinz under a gorgeous warm fall day. The crowd was roaring, my beer was cold, and my pizza was hot. TinBot’s Bengals, with Tom Brady under center, was my opponent. TinBot had finished last the previous season. He’d given up a lot to get Brady, although it was old Brady. I expected a good game.

They’d just placed the ball at the twenty when the alarms went off. iBot immediately roared, “Game’s starting. Shut that fucking alarm off.”

Arya said, “It’s an intruder alert. We can’t just turn it off. It must be investigated.”

“You’re fucking security,” iBot said. As Arya said, “I know who I am,” iBot finished, “Get it done, bot.”

“Game pause,” I said, as the only human, and the only one for which an intruder actually mattered. “Delay the starts until the alarm is resolved.”

While every bot except Arya cursed me, I brought up the security monitors. I figured this was a false alarm or malfunction.

“Where is it, Arya?” I said.

The interior cams caught her moving across the domescape. Drones overtook her.

“Don’t know yet, boss,” she said. She carried two weapons. The drones were armed, too. I pitied any intruders Arya might find.

The security net immediately pinpointed a breach back by a drain. That worried me. As the drones closed on the grassy place beneath a big black oak tree and hovered, their cameras picked up the cat.

“A cat,” I said.

“Yeah, we all have fucking eyes,” iBot said. “Thanks for the news report, egghead”

Protecting three kittens, the cat looked unafraid and ready to fight. The kittens looked like they were just a day or two old.

Arya arrived on the scene. She had her weapons ready. “Instructions,” she said.

“Nuke ’em,” iBot said. “The game’s waiting. Kill them and let the games begin.”

“No,” I said.

I had no need for a cat and kittens. I’m not an animal lover. I have livestock but that’s because I eat real food.

But I saw no reason to kill the cats. She looked like my first girlfriend’s cat. The girlfriend was Joy. The cat was Snuffy. Snuffy was male, though.

A cat with kittens in my sanctuary sowed a shitload of questions that required answers. Besides the breach, her presence meant something was going on outside of my fortress. Plus, being in the dome was one thing, but how had even reached it was almost as critical.

Shit. I didn’t say it, but I thought it about nine times in a row. I wasn’t going to start the football season that day. Not until I knew what the hell had happened to my security and what was going outside of my fortress.

So, see, that’s the day everything changed.

On Cat Day.

 

Salazin – Seven

My conversation with Salazin brought creeping memories of conversations with Dad. I played the part of Salazin, then, bearing good news. Dad was the skeptic.

It was about his new truck. I’d made my first million, thanks to Salazin. Dad was retired from the military, paying the mortgage, working two jobs, and driving a Chevy pick-up that leaned to the left when it was going straight. The engine sounded okay, but its interior was squalid. Dings and scratches pockmarked its blue and white body. It seemed like it always needed new tires, too.

So, hey, wouldn’t it be nice of me to buy Dad a new, loaded truck?

Do y’a think?

Proud and excited, I went to his house and was there when the new Dodge truck was delivered. “Come on, Dad,” I said when the truck pulled up. “I bought you something.”

Mom was looking out the window and talking about, who was that? Realization struck her. Her blue eyes went wide.

Dad isn’t dumb. Hearing the noise, he’d probably begun to guess what was going on. He was reading his Sports Illustrated. He didn’t move.

“Dad?” I said.

“In a minute,” he said without looking up.

Mom gave him a look. Then she looked looked at me with a weary head shake of frowns and an eye-roll.

“Your son brought you a gift,” Mom said.

Dad kept reading.

Mom said to me, “Let’s go outside.”

We went out. She asked questions. Her reaction pleased me. “He’ll really like it,” she said as she walked around the truck. She didn’t sound convinced. “He might not show it, but he’s really proud and impressed by what you accomplished.”

Sure. Dad was suspicious about my wealth. He didn’t buy the story of Salazin’s stock picks at all. He was certain I was doing something illegal like selling drugs, I guess.

I’d also bought a vehicle for Mom, a Cadillac. She was still driving this ginormous Olds Tornado. Red with a white Landau roof, I swear the front end was in a different time zone from the rear. It got terrible gas mileage and bounced along the highway in search of new shocks.

Her Cadillac was arriving now. “Here’s your car, Mom,” I said.

Gasping and smiling, she turned and hugged and kissed me, saying, “Thank you, thank you, but you didn’t have to do that,” as Dad finally emerged from the house.

Magazine in hand, he stood on the porch looking at the scene. He looked like he was chewing something. He looked at the Caddy first. Then he looked at the truck.

“It’s American,” I said, to point it out. Because of Grandpa Diehl and World War Two, Dad didn’t like buying anything from the Japanese, Italians, and Germans, especially a “big ticket” item like a truck or car.

“Who’s that for?” he asked, looking at the Caddy.

“It’s for me,” Mom said. “Look what your son bought me. And he bought you a truck. Come and look at it.”

“I’ll look at it later,” Dad said. “Thanks.”

He turned and returned to the house.

I felt crushed. As Mom tried softening the blow wtih soft touches and words, I said, “It’s a good fucking thing I didn’t buy you a new house, like I was going to.”

She said, “I like this house.”

She looked at her blue and brick ranch house. “I wouldn’t mind a new house.”

Smiling at me, she said, “But we’d better talk about it a while, first, okay?”

I didn’t answer. I never did buy them a new house, but I bought Mom a new townhouse after Dad died.

Salazin – Six

Salazin didn’t let me ponder his comment, “And maybe further.”

That was probably good, because I was about to ask him where he thought his ship could go. The Moon? Mars?

Winking again, Salazin said, “I have prepared a model for you. Just a concept.”

He gestured toward the door. As it opened, Salazin said, “Behold the Nautilaus.”

As Salazin said, “I had this prepared to scale to help you visual it,” a young woman led in a cart. What looked like an upside-down ship was on it. Two young men pushed and guided the cart from either side. The upside-down ship’s bottom was glossy black. The top was charcoal gray. A red band divided the top and bottom. Nautilaus was in script in that band.

Salazin said, “I know that you’re a visual person but that you struggle to imagine things. I hope this helps you.”

After parking the cart, the three people left. When the door closed, Salazin said, “What do you think, Dylan? Is it not amazing?”

I’d been wondering what I thought. “It doesn’t look inviting,” I said. “It looks sinister.”

I was thinking that his model looked ten feet long and half a foot wide. Before Salazin could reply, I said, “How tall would this thing be?”

“Twenty-four stories.”

“Twenty-four stories?” I grappled again with his planned vehicle’s size. “Ten miles long, a half mile wide, and twenty-four stories high?”

“No, from the red band,” Salazin said. “Sorry, it’s twenty-four stories from the red band. It would be a total of twenty-seven stories tall, but three of those stories are below the ground level.”

“Jesus,” I said.

Salazin was walking and talking, and pointing what I took to be a remote. Tuning out of my bewilderment to his words, I caught, “The top is dark now so that I can have the pleasure of revealing the interior to you.”

The gray top turned lighter, growing translucent and then transparent. When that happened, it displayed a delicate framework on the upper part. It also displayed rolling green hills, a blue lake or sea, and multiple roadways, paths, forests, fields, and buildings. Some of the buildings were clustered like small villages. I saw a golf course, swimming pools, a needle-like building, like Seattle’s Space Needle, and what looked like vineyards, orchards, a ranch with horses and cows….

There was so much to see and assimilate, I felt like my mind was fusing into numbness. Without realizing it, I’d stood and walked over to the model.

Ten miles long, twenty plus stories high, and half a mile wide.

I didn’t see anything that looked like it could be an engine.

I saw Salazin slip to a stop beside me. I could see his face. A grin split it.

“What do you think?” he said.

“I think you’re crazy,” I said.

Salazin – Five

“Start again,” I said. “Let’s start again.”

Salazin was posed to listen.

I composed myself to think and speak. “Ten miles is a very long vessel.”

“Yes.”

“Why does it have to be so long?”

“Don’t think of it as just a vessel.”

I waited.

“Think of it as a destination, Dylan,” Salazin said. “Think of it as an exclusive island floating in the sky. Think of it as an exclusive destination. We will grow organic food and raised organic animals. We’ll serve them in our exclusive restaurants.”

“We’ll have more than one restaurant?”

“Yes, yes, why not? We will have an inland sea and luxury villas. And vineyards, wineries, and breweries. We will sell Nautilaus wine. Imagine it.”

“I’m trying to. Why call it Nautilaus?”

“Nautilaus is the perfect name. Nautilaus is associated with adventure and technology.”

“Maybe for you, but I think of exercise equipment.”

“No, no, not exercise equipment. Think of Jules Verne and Robert Fulton.”

“Robert Fulton?”

“Yes, yes, he named his steamboat the Nautilaus, and Jules Verne named his submarine after Fulton’s steamboat.”

“That’s another thing,” I said. “The Nautilaus is a submarine.”

“It is a masterpiece, Dylan. It is a luxury jewel, a vessel to fire imagination, inspire adventure, and embrace luxury. It’s mysterious and unique.”

“Fine.” I’d drop it for now. Salazin was smarter than me, and he’d thought about this more, so I was behind. I knew I’d probably give in soon, but it’s my custom not to be graceful about these things. Actually, it’s not my custom, but my nature. I think I get it from my parents, or maybe the whole damn clan. None of us surrender with grace. We fit to the bitter damn end. Come see us at the holidays, and you’ll understand.

“But ten miles seems extremely long,” I said.

“It needs to be so long for what it will have and be.”

“It won’t be able to land anywhere.”

“Yes, it will. It can land on the ocean. It can land in many other places.”

Salazin leaned in toward me. “Dylan, Dylan. Listen. I know that you must think about things before you say okay. I love that about you. I do.

“But, let me give you more to think about so we can hasten the moment when you say okay. Imagine a floating island that can travel anywhere in the world and be there in a matter of hours. Imagine living in a place isolated from war, disease, and pollution. Imagine being able to dine in a fine restaurant while watching a volcano in Hawaii explode, or floating over Antarctica or the North Pole, watching the glaciers break off and float away. Imagine being able to go to the best place to see meteor showers, eclipses, and the Northern Lights. Imagine the greatness of such a vessel. This is why it’ll be more than a vessel, but will be enshrined as the ultimate destination. As a destination, it can be anywhere.”

“On Earth.”

Salazin winked. “And maybe further.”

Salazin – Four

Mouth agape, I stared at Salazin, looking for a sense of humor. He had one but it didn’t seem present at this time.

“What did you say?” I said.

“I said your ship will be ten miles long.”

“Miles.”

“Yes.”

“Ten miles.”

“Yes, ten miles.” Looking serious, Salazin picked up his beer and watched me.

He didn’t drink much alcohol. I never saw him actually finish beer. I always thought he pretended to drink to put me at ease.

Well, not always. At first, I thought he drank like I did. About a week into our friendship, I began to realize that he didn’t.

“Ten miles long?” I said. The words began to gain substance. “Ten miles long?” I was searching for references. I ran two miles a day. This ship would be five times as long as my daily run. “How wide will it be?”

“One half of a mile wide.”

While that sounded more acceptable, it still seemed unbelievable. A half a mile wide would be an impressive length. Ten miles…ten miles was fucking unbelievable.

Ten miles by half a mile. The ship would be long and narrow. “The engines for this,” I said.

Salazin watched me.

“They have to be enormous,” I said.

“No.” Salazin shook his head. “I told you. <TK> has developed new technology.”

Yes, he’d mentioned her before. “Right, I remember. You always said you would introduce me to her.”

“Yes, and I will. Her travel has been delayed.”

Her travel has been delayed. That statement seemed innocuous back then. Now it seemed like it was heavy with weight. Back then, I thought, airlines, flights, cancellations, weather. Now, thinking, her travel has been delayed, I think, from where?

From what planet?

By what means?

Salazin – Three

Bandon said, “You ready to go, Dee?”

He always called me Dee. I liked it. Bandon was a good choice for the Nautilaus’ captain. He’d grown up around ships, had learned to fly, flew A-10s in the Air Force and then F-22s. A Stanford graduate, he was as all kind of amazing as I was below average.

I’d met him through his wife. She’d come to work for me as my personal assistant after she’d divorced Bandon and moved back to the Bay Area where I lived and worked. Now they were back together as crewmembers on my air ship.

“I am, Bee,” I said.

Bandon stood beside me. “I take it you haven’t seen nor heard from Salazin.”

I put my cell phone down. I was going to call Salazin again, but why?

“He said he wouldn’t be here,” Bandon said.

“I know.”

“He also said that we were to launch at ten.”

“I know.”

“And you know, it’s ten ten now.”

“Yes.”

“Salazin also said that if we launched too late, then we might as well not launch.”

I said nothing.

“Everything is green.”

I nodded.

“It’s your call, chief.”

I nodded.

Salazin had said all those things that Bandon said, but he’d never said why it was so important for us to launch at ten. He was an amazingly accurate and prescient forecaster, and the force behind the Nautilaus’ construction.

That’s why I believed he was an alien.

“Come on, chief. You’ve trusted him this far. He’s never been wrong. Why stop trusting him now?”

Salazin – Two

Mom said, “Grandpa Paul left you five thousand dollars.”

It was another beautiful California day. Ready to head for work, I was feeling joyless. I would be eighteen in five days and worrying about whether my light blue Subaru, now ten years old with one hundred and forty thousand miles and about the same number of rust holes, would make it through the week. My older brother, Rory, was in the Air Force. He’d just celebrated his second year, and had a bought a seven year old Mustang. I was beginning to think joining the military might be the way for me to go.

Five thousand dollars was a fortunate. When I think of Grandpa Paul, I think of hams on Easter, Pall Mall cigarettes and Iron City beer. I couldn’t believe Grandpa Paul had left me five grand. I’d loved the man when he was alive, and now I loved him more.

“I can buy a car,” I said. I’d been picking up the Auto-trader and a couple of those other paper rags that have car ads and ogling them like they were Playboy magazines.

“You should save it for college,” Mom said. “You’re going to need to pay for classes and books, and you won’t be able to work as many hours.”

She always made that speech. I’d argued against it but her logic was better than my emotions. I knew I couldn’t beat her. Feeling bitter about life’s unfairness, I said, “I know,” and stormed out because I knew that she was about to start talking about how important a college education was and all that bullshit.

Out in the Subaru (which started on the first try, after cranking it until the starter began slowing down, thank the fucking gods), I let out my frustration in a spew of swearing and a few hot tears. While I was doing that, I saw Salazin’s list.

I remember that day well, because that’s really when I made the decision that let me become a billionaire.

Salazin – One

It’s time. Salazin isn’t here. I’m not surprised, but I’m sad and disappointed. He said he wouldn’t be here, and he isn’t, but I’m still sad and disappointed.

His first words to me were, “I need money.”

I ignored him. Salazin is broad shouldered and muscular, and doesn’t seem to have any hair that I saw. Black and shiny, he looks almost inky blue in some light. That’s why I ignored him. I try to be hip and cool, but I’m too much like Dad. Black people scare us when we’re alone. I didn’t realize that. I learned that of my Dad and myself almost twenty years later: black people scare us when we’re alone.

Salazin thrust a hand out at me. “Hello.” He grinned with porcelain white teeth. His teeth always amazed me. “I am Salazin.”

Shaking his hand to be polite, I said, “That’s nice.”

Besides being afraid of Salazin because he was black and muscular (and also spoke with an accent) and I was alone, I was not a happy camper. A month away from graduating high school, I worked at the new Home Depot part time, the same place where Dad worked in the evening.s Dad was six months away from retiring from twenty years in the Air Force. The second job was needed to meet our nut. California was expensive that way. Besides Dad’s military job in civil engineering and his Home Depot job, Mom took classes at the community college, and was a security guard there at night, and helped another woman sometimes with her business cleaning houses.

Heather broke up with me a month before, right after Prom, and I was looking forward to taking classes at the same school as Mom. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was smoking a little grass, drinking some, and sometimes smoking cigarettes. I wasn’t big, very good looking, or smart, and had no talent for anything that anyone had found yet.

It was depressing to realize these things about yourself. The thing is, if you’d asked me about it then, I would have called bullshit on you with great defiance. It took me about ten years to realize those things about myself, too.

Salazin said, “What’s your name?”

“Dylan.” Mom had name me after the poet.

“Dylan.” Shaking my hand hard and grinning, Salazin said, “I need money.”

He moved to my table. “I know the stock market.” As he talked, he pulled a folded piece of pocket from his pants, unfolded it and spread it out on the table. “Look at these stocks. If we could buy them, we can make a fortune.”

“We?”

Salazin kept talking while I shook my head and laugh to myself. First pause in Salazin’s spiel, I said, “I don’t have money for the stock market. I’m saving my money to buy a tank of gas so I can go to work.” Truth.

“Then you need to buy these as much as I do,” Salazin said.

“Look,” I said, channeling Dad in one of my most pathetic, chickenshit moments, “if you need money, get a job and save some. That’s how it works in America.” Then I got up, said, “I have to go to fucking work,” and left.

Salazin didn’t give up. He was there every day. Asking, why me, I think the answer is because he knew I wasn’t too smart. He kept fucking at it, telling me, “Take this paper and look at these stocks. We can make money with them.”

I finally took his paper to shut him up, folding it up and shoving it in my pocket to die. I also changed coffee shops because I didn’t want to see him again.

Then I graduated with my barely B average, got more hours at Home Depot, and Grandpa Paul died.

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